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July 26, 2012

Green Mountain Compost to Dole Out Compensation for Contaminated Compost

TomriddleLast night the board of commissioners for the Chittenden Solid Waste District (CSWD) approved a customer-assistance package to provide refunds and some remediation for gardeners affected by trace herbicides discovered in CSWD's Green Mountain Compost. The boarded approved expenditures up to $934,992 to reimburse customers who purchased compost between January 1 and July 13. CSWD voluntarily stopped selling the compost in late June, after first suspecting the presence of persistent herbicides. 

The early suspicions of customers and CSWD staff about the contaminated compost were spot on: As Corin Hirsch reported earlier this month, further testing revealed the presence of two persistent herbicides — clopyralid and picloram — in Green Mountain Compost. CSWD marketing coordinator Clare Innes says that, so far, 470 gardeners have contacted the district to report possible damage from the contaminated soil, and that number is rising daily.

The newly approved customer-assistance package needs final legal approval before CSWD can start writing checks. Assuming they get the go-ahead, the assistance package will likely include:

  • a take-back and refund program for unused compost, as well as refunds for the cost and delivery of bulk compost;
  • refunds for contaminated compost already in use, once the presence of herbicides is confirmed;
  • up to $8 in remediation per bag of used compost for affected gardeners, to cover the loss of seeds, plants, materials, labor and produce;
  • an appeals process for gardeners unhappy with the assistance program.

CSWD is asking potentially affected customers to report abnormal plant growth online; the 470 who've already done so do not need to take any additional action.

Green Mountain Compost is still trying to unravel the mystery of how the two herbicides ended up in its compost. Clopyralid is little used in Vermont, and picloram is tightly regulated. Some manure from horse farms that went into the compost has since tested positive for herbicides — a fact that Innes says was as surprising to the farmers as it was to CSWD. One theory is that farmers had to look out of state for hay and straw after Tropical Storm Irene wiped out some crops last year. While sellers are required by a labeling law to inform customers that a crop has been sprayed, Innes says that information may not have been passed along the chain of custody.

"There are a lot of steps between the person who has decided to spray this particular product on their fields and the person who is feeding this to their horse," she says. "The system is not working." 

Since Cary Giguere, the section chief of the Pesticide Program at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, says the agency is still looking into other possible sources of contamination. Samples of feed, hay and bedding from all area horse farms that send their manure to compost facilities is now at the lab for further analysis. Clippings from homeowners' lawns also tested positive for both herbicides, but no culprit has been identified. The agency ruled out local golf courses, which have a permit for the chemicals, because none send their clippings to compost facilities, and are now looking into local lawn-care companies.

"There could be sort of a rogue lawn-care company out there that’s misusing a pesticide," says Giguere, adding that none has a permit to use picloram.

The Agency of Agriculture has also received a handful of complaints from concerned customers using MooDoo, although plants grown in that compost aren't exhibiting the same classic signs of herbicide exposure, so far. However, because several compost facilities share the same inputs — meaning a farm might send out manure to multiple facilities — Giguere says they're testing for herbicides and pesticides in soil from other compost facilities.

Innes says that reactions to Green Mountain Compost's new customer-assistance program run the gamut from gratitude to dissatisfaction. 

The money for the refunds and remediation will be coming from a stockpile of funds earmarked for improvements to CSWD's materials-recovery facility, where the district sorts recyclable items. Innes says that the withdrawal "by no means cripples that program," but may delay some of the capital upgrades to the sorting and recycling system. 

Meanwhile, five CSWD field techs are out talking to customers and evaluating gardens; as of yesterday, they'd visited 132, and hope to hit another 200 in the next week. About two-thirds are showing signs of contamination, which have so far included curling, wilting and cupping in plants.

Though the health department initially advised against eating produce grown in the contaminated compost, they've revised that advice after further testing to say produce likely won't cause any human harm. The two herbicides are only present in trace amounts in the soil — less, in fact, than the amount permitted to be sold on produce in the supermarket, according to Innes.

Photo courtesy of Tom Riddle

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